United readies for Columbus, concurrent finales
At around 7 p.m. Sunday in Columbus, after the postgame handshakes and final officiating complaints, D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen will walk through the northwest tunnel at Mapfre Stadium toward the locker room and begin receiving scores from the other Eastern Conference matches.
The most important result will have played out in front of him against the hometown Columbus Crew, a match that could decide second place. But with several other games impacting United’s playoff plans—all are synchronizedand, in theory, will end within moments of one another— Olsen will also have to inquire about the scores in New York, Montreal and Philadelphia.
To raise the drama of the final day of the regular season, ML S has borrowed an idea from the Premier League by scheduling all 10 matches on the same day. Not as much is it at stake here as in England, where the 10 May finales kick off simultaneously and often determine the league title, relegation to the second division and slots in European competition.
Nonetheless, MLS has certainly added some fizz to the regular season before the playoffs start Wednesday and Thursday.
“It’s interesting and the right thing to do,” Olsen said, adding that he would like to see all 10 matches start at the same time.
Because of broadcasting windows, multiple time zones and other issues, the league was not able to do that. But it did align the five matches pitting Eastern teams against one another at 5 p.m. and the five Western pairings at 7.
One late change was made: The New York Red Bulls game in Chicago was moved to 7 p.m. to go head to head with FC Dallas vs. San Jose. The Red Bull sand Dallas are tied in the race for the Supporters’ Shield trophy, awarded to the regular season points champion.
While their match transpires, Olsen and his players do not have to concern themselves with other scores. It’s simple: With a victory, United would clinch second place, receive a first-round bye and gain a week of preparation before the first leg of the conference semifinals next weekend.
But with a tie, D.C. (51 points) would need Toronto (49) to lose or draw against Montreal (48) to retain the No. 2 slot. A United defeat would lift Columbus (50) into second place behind the Red Bulls (57) and drop D.C. to third or fourth.
The third- and fourth-place playoff teams will host one-off, first-round matches Wednesday or Thursday against the No. 6 and 5 teams, respectively. Only the sixth slot in the East remains technically unclaimed, but New England (47) is all but a lock to outlast Orlando (44).
The real drama rests in the West. Only Dallas, Los Angeles and Vancouver have secured postseason passage. Portland, Seattle, Kansas City and San Jose, meanwhile, are vying for the last three positions.
Aside from playoff seeding, United (15-12-6)wants to continue building momentum. Since a sixgame win less rut, the club has won two straight: a comeback victory over New York City FC and a 4-0 romp against last-place Chicago.
“We’ve gotten ourselves out of this slump,” midfielder Chris Pontius said, “but it’s only been two games we’ve really played well. We’ve got to keep this going.”
What has helped the cause is a consistent lineup. After a season of different looks, forced by injuries, suspensions and other issues, Olsen is likely to stick with the same group for the third consecutive game.
The Crew (14-11-8), for its part, will play without two of the league’s premier attackers: Kei Kamara, who is tied for the MLS scoring lead with 22 goals, and Federico Higuain, an exquisite playmaker, must serve yellowcard suspensions.
Still, history is not on United’s side: It’s winless in seven straight visits to central Ohio. Although D.C.’s season away record is not horrible (4-9-3), it has posted just two victories in its past 13 road matches and scored a league-low nine goals in 16 games. The only time United scored multiple goals away from RFK Stadium was six months ago in Vancouver.
The good news? D.C. just so happens to be the second-best defensive team on the road in MLS, having conceded just 19 goals.
“Our road form hasn’t been great,” Olsen said. But “belief isn’t an issue right now. . . . There is no shortage of motivation.”